John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and other ductile conversations

Source: WIkipedia
Tracing of an engraving of the “Sosibios Vase”, a Neo-Attic (Hellenistic style of sculpture that began in the 2nd Century B.C.E.) marble volute krater (Vase used for the dilution of wine with water in Ancient Greece), signed by Sosibios (a Greek Sculptor), by John Keats, as he saw it in Henry Moses’s “A Collection of Antique Vases, Altars, Paterae” [2]

It was in May 1819 that John Keats probably wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” published anonymously in the art magazine, the Annals of Fine Arts in January1820. This is a modern and original Ekphrasis based on his interpretation of a Grecian Urn. Keats, the Romantic poet, had access to prints of Grecian Urns at the office of Benjamin Robert Haydon, a British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures. His poem is also said to have been partly inspired by the Sosibios Vase [1] I revisited this poem today, since I wished to attempt an ekphrastic exercise based on a photo I took recently of a ductile cast iron trench grate. It was the word ductile that provoked me to photograph it in the first place, having had no prior knowledge of grates except that I am impressed by their solidity. I have a strong affinity for iron; my kitchen is testament to this, replete with cast iron pots, woks, griddles and skillets. 

” A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; ” wrote John Keat in his “from Endymion” [3] I have always admired trench grates, the beauty in their form, the markings on them, delighted as I am to see many of those along the streets and avenues in Manhattan sport stamps of ‘Made in India’. This was an attempt to redeem the solidity of that which bears the tread of a million embodied souls. Trench grates are made of gray cast iron, ductile cast iron and cast aluminium. Ductile cast iron is in fact excellent in areas where there is fairly heavy load. They are able to withstand sudden shock by bending and absorbing extreme or sudden impact. They also exhibit corrosive resistance and are able to outlive the very pavements they are set into. Load strength is in the grate itself [4]. Now, an ‘Ode’ is a fairly elaborate lyric poem, with strict form and structure, exalting in praise an event or an entity. I thought of writing an Ode to the Ductile Cast Iron Grate besides an analysis of Keats’ poem.

Ductile cast iron grate

Keats created his own ode to scenes that he imagined painted on a Grecian Urn. His ode is to figures that appear immortal to him on this ancient artifact, that are in fact imprisoned in a moment. His poem isn’t like a Greek Ode, with its rigid strophe, antistrophe, and epode. In his own unique style, it is made up of five stanzas of ten lines each, employing iambic pentameter, the rhyming scheme of ABAB, with the final Miltonic Sestet (1st and 5th stanzas CDEDCE, 2nd stanza CDECED, and 3rd and 4th stanzas CDECDE) varying through the stanzas [5] The first four lines reveal an adherence to classical symmetry in poetry and the next six are of the asymmetry in Romantic Poetry. Some of the literary devices he used are syzygy, metaphor, apostrophe, rhetorical questions, paradox and alliteration. This is what Walter Jackson Bate wrote in his”The Stylistic Development of Keats”,  about Keats’ poetic style: Keats’s metre reflects a conscious development in his poetic style. The poem contains only a single instance of medial inversion (the reversal of an iamb in the middle of a line), which was common in his earlier works. However, Keats incorporates spondees in 37 of the 250 metrical feet. Caesurae are never placed before the fourth syllable in a line. The word choice represents a shift from Keats’s early reliance on Latinate polysyllabic words to shorter, Germanic words. In the second stanza, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which emphasizes words containing the letters “p”, “b”, and “v”, uses syzygy, the repetition of a consonantal sound. The poem incorporates a complex reliance on assonance, which is found in very few English poems. Within “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, an example of this pattern can be found in line 13 (“Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d”) where the “e” of “sensual” connects with the “e” of “endear’d” and the “ea” of “ear” connects with the “ea” of “endear’d”.[1a]  I had to read this thrice to understand the meaning of medial inversion and then I pondered if Keats stuttered his way through spondees, then he may have never been able to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn” without it possibly disintegrating to pieces in his mind, what with his lungs struggling for breath and all. Is it any wonder that I chose a Ductile Iron Trench Grate for my Ekphrasis ! In any case, I do appreciate them both, the artist that builds/creates and the academic that parses it out.

Keats ends his ode with the famous lines, “beauty is truth; truth, beauty – that is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know”, which according to some begs the question of the relationship between the aesthetic beauty of art and the ethical truth of poetry. Plato in his ‘The Republic’ argues that “the illusions of artwork may be so convincing that they are mistaken for the real thing, and this is potentially dangerous.” Ekphrasis, operating as writing for art, also exists in the knowledge of failure that the poet can never appropriate all of the nuances and meaning that the artist may have communicated in his/her work, and, perhaps even more dangerous, is that the poet may attribute his/her own meaning or dialogue to the work of art, which therefore may distort the viewer’s opinion of the work of art [6] Do we not all subscribe to the third century proverb “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” that first appeared printed in “Love’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare” published in 1588 as,

“Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.” [7]

As for authorship and how a poet construes meaning from artwork in an ekphrastic exercise, I would feel the world appears to revolve around borrowed opinions, rehashed aphorisms placed there by our own subjectivity within echo chambers. What of truth except that, like beauty, patterns of truth too are wrought about by the judgement of the eye. Each of us feels the truth a different way. Sometimes, I think the entire objective of my writing is to view the world like one would view the stars, from the equator, the tropics of Cancer or Capricorn or the poles and the truth would simply appear different each time [8] So, no, I don’t get Plato here but I do get Keats in his poem thus far. The romanticists make everything sound simply better; we appear to be in a universe of illusions, starting with the Grecian Urn.

When I revisited ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ [9][10], I was struck by the beauty of some of the lines that seemed to trigger a need to formulate my own version of an entity embodying or capturing the story engraved upon it. Is that not what the Urn does as an “unravish’d bride of quietness, a foster-child of silence and slow time, a Sylvan historian” lacking the voice and rhyme of a questioning poet who expects perhaps no answer to his rhetorical questions. 

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

There is passion engraved onto the Urn and the poet’s imaginings. Passion is to poetry what a tempest is to the sea, volatile and uncontrollable, yet, the Urn is enduring in a moment framed for posterity. One would wonder here, given that John Keats suffered from a lack of vitality, with his struggle with tuberculosis, if his attempts at romanticising life is exactly that, framing the ephemeral in words, whether it is a fleeting love or a blazing hatred or a stony indifference. Keats was trained as an apothecary-surgeon, as well as licensed, he wasn’t educated in the corridors of a knowledge hierarchy but I was sad to learn that the poet George Byron (commonly known as Lord Byron) once likened Keats’ poems as a form of intellectual “Onanism,” a biblically polite way of referring to the poems as a form of mental masturbation [11] I had never known of that word until today, but I am happy to feel much more respect for a medical practitioner who simply taught himself poetry, well enough to become one of Britain’s leading romantic poets, subject to scathing reviews (especially from Byron who wrote thus about Keats to his own publisher ~ I think he took the wrong line as a poet, and was spoilt by Cockneyfying, and Suburbing, and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary ~ upon learning of Keats’ death  ) I had to bring out my dictionary to parse the criticism in his. Keats succumbed to his illness at the ripe old age of 25. Nations do tend to build themselves on the bones of the dead that were quite invisible while they were alive, it has been claimed that John Keats died of disappointment over the poor literary reception his poems received [11] but I digress from his poem.

The second stanza bears upon the fact that the scene is frozen in time on the Urn, lovers and spirits amidst sweet melodies of unknown tone, yet Keats cheats death in his poem, cheats the vagaries of aging, the crippling of disease. His lovers achieve immortality on an Urn, where beauty and youth are unchanging, akin to a living death framed in an immortal moment.

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

The third stanza is an allusion to the lack of vitality, the exhaustion of human love, possibly in the physical act of intercourse aimed at procreation.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

I think Keats simply wrote about the possibility of La petite mort or the little deathIt is an expression which means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” and in modern usage refers specifically to “the sensation of post orgasm as likened to death.” [12] Dr. Adrian Perkel states that: Some literature refers to this as Post-coital tristesse (PCT), the feeling of sadness, anxiety, agitation or aggression after sexual intercourse. Its name comes from New Latin postcoitalis and French tristesse, literally “sadness”. Many people with PCT may exhibit strong feelings of anxiety lasting from five minutes to two hours after coitus. The phenomenon is traced to the Greek doctor Galen, who wrote, “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster.” [13] I think, despite his Freudian take on La Petite Mort and a slight vilification of poets and philosophy (he may need to read this poem by Keats), Dr. Perkel tries to elucidate in addition, the neurobiological consequences of human coitus and ejaculation, in the loss of energy and potency for a man while it is a gain for a woman in terms of oxytocin, the desire to bond, the potential to reproduce. I am not sure, how the psychoanalysis of a sexually engaged homosexual couple would be viewed from the lens of the little death for that matter. I would also like to make the case for a woman, not as much post coital, but in gestating a foetus, in that, ongoing research has tested and supports the hypothesis that maternal immune systems respond to prior pregnancies as they do to macro-parasitic exposures. Simply put, pregnancy can increase production of Immunoglobulin E (IgE), an immune response more often directed towards parasite infections [14] So, the act of procreation is a little death for both, man and woman.

In the third stanza, I find, the poet has simply expressed an inner resonance in the timbre of his poem, the fever of passions, the immortality inherent in the act of defying consummation yet sadly, that immortality resides on an Urn made of clay. It is a paradox, that life begets life by foregoing it momentarily, at least in humans. In many other organisms, procreation is an affair with death, eg: the female octopus. Yet, despite everything, humans’ grander motivations appear driven through either denouncing or embracing their intrinsic biology, in the looming picture of genetic immortality. Do I digress from Keats’ “happy love! For ever panting and for ever young’ by dwelling thus on the consequences of “A burning forehead, and a parching tongue” ?

It is a different scene on the Urn that is described in the fourth stanza, of a heifer being led to a sacrificial altar that ends strangely in these lines:

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

Scholars have analysed this, meaning to be that the narrator of the poem does not understand the motivations of the people who lead the sacrifice or the significance of an empty town. Is it denuded of people simply because of lovers that did not carry forth the societal obligation to go forth and multiply? I believe the answer is in his innocence of the worldly and material at the age of 22 when he wrote this poem, his youth of unbridled idealism, romanticism although a body afflicted, this shows in stanza five:

When old age shall this generation waste,
         Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Truly, aware of his own mortality in 1819, his growing love for Fanny Brawne, the death of his brother, [15] the lack of vitality in leading a life like his peers perhaps, what more could have engendered those lines, but a passive resignation to the futility of pursuing immortality in the material, as he attempted in the transcendental, the poetic and the idealistic. I believe the prospect of imminent death has a strange way of magnifying life, devoid of the biological impulse to genetic perpetuation, in the fear of recognising perhaps that life is solely a singular spark, gone too soon with everything that took to build it up.

I enjoyed working through this poem by Keats and the biographical sketches I referenced. My poem though, is not an ode in the strict sense, except that it seeks to exalt metal, cast with the sole purpose of being immortal. It also tries to speak of the beauty that we encounter in others, our common humanity, the people that touch us, divided as we are by the firmament or our individual selves, in words that seem to synchronise in a poetic resonance to produce something of profound beauty. Perhaps, therein lies the purpose of poetry too, a transcendental language to communicate endlessly at a universal frequency of delicate nuance in timbre. For this poem, I turned to the Romanticists, not the empiricists. Do forgive me if the science is flawed. Enjoy the poem.

Ode to a cast iron grate :
Clove hitch of water in ductile conversations ...

Yours, a vantage view of firmament
soggy in the kinship of Nimbus
that pass muster of Zeus;
a cavalcade of percussionists,
in thunderous declarations, some 
simply swollen in an aftertaste of sorrow. 

Theirs, a lexicon streaming along 
the timbre of an Aeolian Babel 
forcing in rhythmic incantations
of rain, soaking the pavement,
ingress on the iron veneer, of your
solid hand that sieves sentiment.

These, the sounds of  sky, finally
stampeding, your burnished fate
as they merge in seeking, the same 
depths, falling to the same hell or heaven ...
There was beauty in the words 
they spun in the skies.

Those chinks in your armour, allow
passage to the sea, past your
mortified malleable melancholy.
Sentiment you say, stretched to loop
myriad clove hitches of water,
that cavort through gaps of passion, 

recessed into dark relief, your
piped soliloquies to the sea
spiriting ductile conversations ...
Your form will outlast the tread 
of a million embodied souls,
on the cast of your immortal rigor.

You, a Grecian aulist !
Does it matter what the clouds
sorrowed for? Does it matter
what they thundered at? 
They play you like reeds, seeking
the harmony of the sea.

You, the connoisseur of love !
Swallowing serenades, coursing 
in rivulets of emotion, foisted 
by sentinels of burgeoning passions, 
gurgling through you to an ocean 
which seems only to rise, in love or tears.


Aulist ~ An Aulist is one who plays the Aulos, an ancient Greek wind instrument, often translated as “flute” or “double flute”, it was usually a double-reeded instrument, and its sound was more akin to that of the bagpipes (Wikipedia)

Cumulonimbus clouds are also called thunderheads. Thunderheads produce rain, thunder, and lightning.

Aeolus ~ Greek God of wind

Zeus ~ Greek God of sky and thunder, king of the Gods

Literary devices (Source~

Alliteration ~ Alliteration involves the repetition in two or more nearby words of initial consonant sounds not necessarily the consonant letters; “heart high-sorrowful,” in the third stanza
Apostrophe ~ An apostrophe is a poetic phrase addressed to a subject who is either dead or absent, or to an inanimate object or abstract idea; “O Attic shape!’ in the last stanza, refers to its neo-attic style of sculpture

Metaphor ~ a comparison between two unlike things without the use of like or as;  “unravish’d bride of quietness,” he calls the urn in the first line of the first stanza

Paradox ~ self contradictory statements or phrases with an underlying logic to them; “Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss”, as in the second stanza

Rhetorical questions ~ A question asked for effect or emphasis and where no real answer is expected; “What men or gods are these?” in the first stanza

Syzygy ~ In poetry, consonantal or phonetic syzygy is similar to the effect of alliteration, where one consonant is used repeatedly throughout a passage, but not necessarily at the beginning of each word (Wikipedia)  In the 2nd stanza, there is an emphasis on the letters ‘p’, ‘b’ and ‘v’ 



[1a]~Bate, Walter Jackson. The Stylistic Development of Keats. New York: Humanities Press, 1962 [1]








[9]Ode on a Grecian Urn, Original Poem ~